RE: To tense or not to tense

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Fri Mar 14 1997 - 08:13:05 EST

At 6:22 AM -0600 3/14/97, Rolf Furuli wrote:
>Dear Greeks,
>Do you shudder when I refer to the parsing of Greek verbs as
>tensing? You ought to! I shudder when I see the word `tense`
>used for Greek present, imperfect aorist and the others,
>because this is a misnomer. `Tense` is defined as `a
>grammaticalization of location in time` (-ed in English
>`walked` codes for instance for past tense). True the
>augment signalled past time, and probably does so also in
>biblical Greek, though this is disputed, but present has no
>such signal. Worse still is the fact that Greek has a
>genuine tense (a few disputes also this), namely future, so
>to call all of them `tenses`is really confusing. They are
>aspects and not tenses!
>Hebrew perfect and imperfect are called `conjugations` and
>this solves a similar problem. The same is also possible in
>Greek. And similarly in writing: if we say that a verb has
>past tense, we imply that the grammatical form codes for
>past tense; if we say that a verb has past meaning, we just
>refer to its function in the context.
>I do not expect to turn the tide. As long as the grammars
>use `tense` it will prevail. My intention is not to suggest
>a new terminology on B-Greek, but rather to stimulate the
>minds to do some reflection. There are many self-taught
>persons on the list (I admire such persons because this is
>the harder way to learn, requiring much selfdiscipline), and
>to reflect on the nature of the verbs is not the first step
>to take. However, at some point it is important to come to
>grips with the verbs. Let me quote one of my pet-maxims: `A
>clear understanding of the parts gives a clear understanding
>of the whole.`

I like that, but I wouldn't stop with it; one of my pet-maxims is: "The
whole is greater than the sum of its parts." there's a celebrated dictum of

        non ut, si solvas "Postquam Discordia taetra
        Belli ferratos postis portasque refregit,"
        invenias etiam disjecti membra poetae.

        "You're not likely, just by analyzing [a celebrated proem of the
poet Ennius] to discover as well all that it takes to make a poet."

Which is to say, in my judgment, it's equally important to look at both the
forest and the trees.

Thanks for a very fascinating and provocative post. Your tirade against
referring to these Greek "conjugations" as "tenses" and my tirade against
referring to middle/reflexive forms as "deponents"--and maybe Micheal's
learned disquisition on the right way to describe Hellenistic prepositional
phrases may be he start of a revolution in Greek linguistics! I do believe
it would be worthwhile, but the trouble with revolutions is that they waste
a lot of energy (and blood, in the case of social/political ones) and they
don't necessarily result in an improved state of affairs. I suspect that as
descriptive terms in NT Greek pedagogy "tense" and "deponent" will stick
around, to use the old Catullan phrase, "more than one 'saeculum.'"

>The parts of the system are Tense, aspect, Mood and
>Aktionsart. The first and most difficult step is to
>differentiate between aspect and Aktionsart.

And now, please, would you proceed to give us your "handle" on how to make
that initial differentiation? I've been aware in much that I've read that
they are sometimes being used synonymously, so far as I can tell, and
sometimes they seem to be differentiated. I would like to read, for once, a
clear and logical account of what each is, how they relate to each other
and how they differ from each other. It need not be the 14K of Micheal's
splendid account of the prepositional phrase, but I would be most grateful
for 3K of clear and concise definitions. It would not surprise me if this
should evoke other endeavors to clarify the distinction; hopefully the
input of all interested parties will achieve a beautiful, harmonious, and
determinative B-Greek definition of these terms.

Thanks in advance.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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